In my opinion, Kaizen is one of the most brilliantly simple, yet powerful business philosophies there is. Translated from Japanese, it simply means, “good change.” The Kaizen approach rests on the principle that everyone should be involved in improvement, every day. It is a form of mutual respect that empowers employees to create the conditions under which they can do their best work.
Organizations that embrace the Kaizen approach are all over the map in terms of industry, geography, and size, but there are a few ways that you can recognize them. Kaizen has a transformative impact, and some common attributes start to emerge when the approach is consistently applied.
Implement Small Ideas
Kaizen isn’t about swinging for the fences on every at-bat. It’s about racking up a whole bunch of singles and doubles that result in a big score and few strikeouts. Processes don’t become perfect all in one DMAIC cycle, but with incremental changes, they inch closer to flawless operation. Because improvement becomes everyone’s responsibility with Kaizen, each person can report opportunities for positive change and work to implement them. Kaizen software makes this a frictionless part of everyday work.
Apply Systematic Thinking
When there is an error or defect, it is easy to blame the process operator and chalk it up to “Human error.” Sometimes, managers believe that problems can be resolved just by changing people. This is not the Kaizen way. The Kaizen approach is a systematic one. Errors and defects are the results of problems in the system, not problems with the people. Instead of placing blame, leaders look to uncover the cause of the problem and correct it so the process can become error-proof. Changes may need to be made to training materials, workspace conditions, visual management, or other parts of the process.
A perfect process will produce or require nothing that doesn’t add value to the customer. That’s a tall order, but people practicing Kaizen try to achieve it by rooting out waste including excess inventory, unnecessary motion or transportation, overly complicated features that the customer won’t pay for, poorly designed workspaces, and too much reliance on inspection. When an employee identifies an opportunity to reduce waste, an improvement cycle such as DMAIC or PDSA is initiated to eliminate it as much as possible.
Drive Decisions with Data
Never forget the “good” part of “good change” when applying Kaizen. Successful organizations don’t just change for the sake of it; they take steps to make sure they understand the baseline results and measure the impact of any improvements to make sure things are moving in the right direction. This is another reason that change in Kaizen is incremental. If you implement ten changes to a process at once, you won’t be able to determine what caused the new result. Kaizen software is beneficial for measuring the impact of improvement in both the short and long term. It also collects all of the details about every change so that the next project can build off the last.
If you think that asking employees to add daily improvement to their already long list of things to do will be a burden, you may be surprised. People want to be in charge of their destiny. They feel respected when they are trusted to innovate the process they operate, and they get excited about contributing to the success of the organization in a way that is recognized and rewarded. The Kaizen approach is not just one more thing on the “To Do” list. Instead, it is perhaps the most direct and powerful way to unleash the creativity and potential of every person on the team.
Make Cross-Functional Collaboration Routine
We mentioned systemic thinking as it applies to focusing on process rather than people, but it is also relevant to how all of the processes in the organization relate to each other. An organization is really just one big system for delivering value to the customer. Therefore, Kaizen requires that departmental silos be broken down so that the flow of value can be optimized without concern for spheres of influence or territorial thinking.
Solid leadership is the key to getting an organization to fully embrace the Kaizen way. (Here are some tips on doing just that.) We highly recommend the book, “Kaizen: The Key To Japan's Competitive Success,” by Masaaki Imai for in-depth insight into the philosophy and how it transformed some of the most successful companies in Japan.